The verdict is in – book critics across the country are falling in love with “Serena,” the latest novel penned by Ron Rash, Western Carolina University’s Parris Distinguished Professor of Appalachian Culture.
Since the September publication of “Serena” by HarperCollins, the positive reviews have been coming in fast and furious for Rash, a descendant of Southern Appalachian families who was raised in Boiling Springs, earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English, and wrote three collections of poetry and two collections of short stories before transitioning to writing novels.
In early November, Rash (shown at right) learned that “Serena” had been named to the Publishers Weekly “Best Books of the Year” list, and that the novel had come in at No. 7 on the online retailer Amazon’s list of the 100 best books of 2008. Those accolades have been accompanied by a flurry of glowing reviews in newspapers and magazines across the nation, including the New York Times, in which reviewer Janet Maslin praised Rash’s “elegantly fine-tuned voice.”
Rash was recently notified that “Serena,” which is already being translated into Dutch and French, will be on a soon-to-be-released list of the New York Times’ best books of the year. Novelist Pat Conroy has stated that Rash’s fourth novel “catapults him to the front ranks of the best American novelists.”
Rash said the praise for “Serena” is encouraging because “it’s the book I worked on the hardest. It’s nice to get a good response to it,” he said.
As the literary praise comes his way, Rash stays busy as he teaches Appalachian literature and creative writing at WCU, and continues to prepare his next published work, a collection of short stories. He also is being called upon more often to present readings across the country, and in recent months has been to Boston, Portland and Cincinnati. “The best part of that is getting to meet writers I admire,” Rash said.
The Southern Appalachians are a common theme that runs throughout Rash’s poetry, short stories and novels, and “Serena” is no different. The novel tells the story of a timber baron, George Pemberton, and his ruthless wife, Serena, who come to the North Carolina mountains to create a timber empire.
Rash says each of his three previous novels began with a single image that came to his mind, but “Serena” started with two images: a huge table that he saw at a resort in Waynesville that had been hewn from a single piece of yellow poplar, and an image of a woman riding a ridge crest on a “magnificent white stallion” that popped into his head while he was driving through the mountains. That woman is his fictional Serena.